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Cannes, a k a Asia West
Updated: 2004-05-21 17:07

Wong Kar-Wai's melancholy "2046."

It has become something of a journalistic clich└ to preface any mention of Wong Kar-Wai's "2046" with the words "long awaited." Four years have passed since "In the Mood for Love," with its elliptical story and fabulous clothes, set the critics swooning at the 53rd Cannes International Film Festival (and won its dapper male lead, Tony Leung, the award for best actor).

Mr. Wong's new film was expected at the Cannes festival last spring, and then in Venice the following summer. It was not ready for either of those events. On Thursday the audience at the 57th Cannes festival, whose catalogs listed "2046" among the competitive entries, had to wait a bit longer than anticipated.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady."
It was announced on Tuesday that the press screening of the picture, a movie so elusive that even the sales agents representing it have seen only bits and pieces, would now take place simultaneously with the gala public showing on Thursday evening, rather than on Thursday morning as had been planned. The print, apparently, would not be ready before then.

Why the delay? Some people impishly suggested that the director, who has been known to reshoot and recut his films until the last possible minute (and beyond), was still on location or in an editing room somewhere. A joke making the rounds in the cafes and hotel bars suggested that Mr. Wong was working out a deal with festival organizers whereby his next movie would be given the Palme d'Or in 2007 and shown in 2008. Or perhaps the title of "2046" referred to its projected completion date.

Such humor amused everyone except the publicists handling the film, who assured us that the print had been held up by minor problems at the developing lab in Hong Kong. Or maybe in Bangkok. Would it arrive in France in time for the rescheduled screening? "Of course," one publicist said. "Of course. Absolutely. I hope."

Zhang Ziyi in the Chinese film "House of Flying Daggers," directed by Zhang Yimou.
Two obvious scenarios suggested themselves. The reels would arrive at the Palais des Festivals just before the screening. (You could picture a frantic courier in black tie lugging them up the red-carpeted steps.) And then, on Saturday night, "2046" would win the Palme. Or else we would sit in our tuxedos and evening dresses staring at a blank screen for two hours and hope that the party hadn't been canceled as well. In either case, we would all be able to congratulate ourselves on having witnessed a legendary Cannes moment.

What we did witness was, well, a Wong Kar-Wai movie, full of lush, melancholy sensuality and swathed in light as lustrous and supple as the Shantung dresses all of the actresses seem to wear. The title, by the way, refers both to a hotel room in Hong Kong in the late 1960's and a high-speed train racing through the future, and one of the film's themes (aptly enough, given the drama surrounding its arrival) is time. The characters are always falling in and out of love too soon or too late, and the chronology glides forward and backward.

Like other work from this director, "2046" teases the boundary of incomprehensibility. It is a series of moods, nuances and gorgeous moments ! seductions, couplings, tearful partings ! with the usual connective tissue left out, or implied in title cards and voice-overs. After the two screenings early in the evening, quite a few viewers rushed back to see it again later Thursday night, to experience its intoxicating beauty one more time, and also to figure out what on earth it was about.

Whether or not "2046" takes the Palme, its scene-stealing provided a fitting climax to this year's festival. The dominant personalities ! Michael Moore and Quentin Tarantino ! may have been American, but Asia was the continent most heavily represented in competition, with 6 of the 19 entries. In addition to "2046," from Hong Kong, there were two each from South Korea and Japan and one from Thailand.

The other programs were also full of Asian films, ranging from the quiet, well-received "Passages" by the first-time Chinese director Yao Chang to the lavish, crowd-pleasing "House of Flying Daggers" by the eminent Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou. There were, among other offerings, a smattering of Hong Kong action spectacles, a science-fiction anime feature from Japan ("Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," in the main competition) and a Korean War picture ("Sword in the Moon," in Un Certain Regard). You could extend the theme of Asian dominance by noting that by virtue of "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," Mr. Tarantino, the president of the jury, might qualify as an Asian filmmaker himself. (Through his enthusiastic advocacy of Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong movies, he is certainly as responsible as anyone for turning the eyes of young American audiences eastward. He may do the same for the Cannes jury.) After a day in the screening rooms, you could wander out of the Palais and be forgiven for thinking that the Mediterranean Sea was really the Pacific Ocean.

This is not the first time that Asian films (and their admirers) have had a significant presence in Cannes: 2000 was the year not only of "In the Mood for Love" but also of "Yi Yi," "Chunhyang," "Eureka" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Recently this festival has become one of the premier Western showcases of Asian cinema, a development that reflects both the tastes of the programmers and the state of global film culture in the first decade of the 21st century. What Europe was 30 years ago, Asia is today: a continent with at least a half-dozen artistically and commercially thriving national cinemas producing work in a dizzying variety of styles and genres, from challenging festival fare to populist blockbusters. Their influence is felt around the world, in the high-flying martial-arts wire work that has lately become a Hollywood clich└ and, more interestingly, in the delicate urban anomie (a specialty of Mr. Wong's) that permeates Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation."

At the moment, the biggest boom may be happening in South Korea, one of the few countries outside the United States where domestic productions dominate the box office. One of last year's biggest local hits, Park Chan-Wook's "Old Boy," an ultra-violent revenge noir, is in competition here. Alongside it is Hong Sangsoo's "Woman Is the Future of Man," a low-key, sexually frank study in disconnection and romantic frustration.

Their presence in Cannes is further evidence that both large-scale commercial filmmaking and art house cinema are thriving in Korea. But this situation creates some tensions and anxieties. Over lunch on a terrace at the Grand Hotel, Mr. Hong noted that actors, prodded by a new breed of managers and agents, are increasingly drawn to high-profile, potentially lucrative projects. He worried that his country's rapidly expanding film production might marginalize less splashy work. Pierre Rissient, a longtime supporter of Mr. Hong's work, who has been one of Asian cinema's leading French ambassadors since the early 1970's, echoed that concern. "I hope that this wave will still permit idiosyncratic filmmakers to survive," he said.

It is hard to imagine a filmmaker more idiosyncratic than Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai director whose second feature, "Tropical Malady," is the great curiosity of this festival. It is the kind of movie that reveals a great deal about the taste of its viewers. For every person you meet who fell into deep slumber before the end of the first hour, you find another who was utterly hypnotized by its languid rhythms and its haunting lyricism.

For its first half, "Tropical Malady" has the moody eroticism of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, as a soldier stationed at the edge of the jungle and a young ice-truck driver from the city pursue an apparently chaste but nonetheless passionate love affair. Midway through, this story is abruptly replaced by an animist folk tale in which a different soldier pursues the ghost of a tiger, who assumes the shape of a naked, heavily tattooed man, through the jungle. An allegorical relationship between the two halves is hinted at, but this is the kind of movie that frustrates all analysis. After a while, you give up on trying to understand it and surrender either to fatigue or to its teasing, dreamy ambience.

And then you move on, tripping from the shiny android future of "Innocence" to the sumptuous ninth-century pageantry of "House of Flying Daggers," from high-rise loneliness to rural poverty, all without leaving either Southern France or East Asia. By 2046 ! the year of the 99th Cannes International Film Festival, not the movie that tantalized the 57th ! Mr. Wong may be finished with his sequel. And by then, rather than remarking on the vitality of Asian cinema, people may be wondering if interesting movies are still being made anywhere else.

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